You Won’t Need an “Emergency Plan” for Your Practice if You Have A “Growth and Success” Plan In Place

Susan Carter Liebel just posted an article on the Solo Practice University blog – a powerful and meaningful story that every sole practitioner needs to read and heed: “Emergency Planning – Thinking About the Unthinkable.”

But – in my opinion it doesn’t address the underlying issue. The best attorneys don’t need an “emergency plan” because they have built a FIRM with systems, procedures and team members who know – because they’re working on – everything that’s going on – every client, every file. Maybe it’s only one well-qualified paralegal/assistant, or maybe its a sharp associate and several team members. With this, another attorney can walk into the practice and have all the tools necessary to keep it moving and keep clients safe. In fact, even when the attorney is not there – whether for an emergency or a vacation – that good team is taking care of clients and watching over the practice. The solo-solo or the solo with only an untrained clerk don’t have anyone besides themselves who know what’s going on in the practice. They may have lists and stack of files, but most usually all the critical information is in their head.

As Michael Gerber said in “The E-Myth,” if nothing gets done when you’re not present, you don’t have a business – you have a job.” And there’s another issue. The attorney with no team has an absolute limit on his or her firm’s growth, because they have an absolute limit on their time and energy. And their family often has a limit to their tolerance of an absent spouse or parent.

So the greater truth is that the better kind of “emergency plan” is really a plan for growth and success – and the possibility of having a personal life. I just did a 10-minute video titled “The Almost Lone Ranger Syndrome”  that addresses exactly this issue. I just don’t address it as an “emergency plan” issue.

Partner Compensation: Start Making Sense – A Riposte

Jordan Furlong just posted another thoughtful and perceptive Law21 blog post on law firm compensation that is worth your attention: Partner Compensation: Start Making Sense. Jordan is one of the profession’s deepest thinkers and most accurate futurists, and writes what is consistently one of the top 100 legal blogs and my personal favorite. I suggest you read it first, then come back here for my counterpoint. He and I most often agree on the principles, but not always on the details.

Jordan’s observation is dead on that compensation is the “third rail” and one of the fundamental reason why law firms are failing, splintering, and going through hugely disruptive times. They are failing because of inordinate and warped compensation structures, splintering because younger partners are increasingly unwilling to finance massive payouts to retiring partners, and experiencing huge disruptions as the more progressive of them attempt to right the boat and survive.

Here are my comments on Jordan’s three points –along with a general agreement on both his approach and philosophy.

1. Stop overvaluing sales.

Yes – this “most highly valued” area of business generation is overvalued, for the reasons Jordan suggests.

His solutions, while in the right direction, contain somewhat of a fatal flaw, which is calculating “profit” on which to measure sales compensation. This introduces a wildcard factor that can destroy the original intent, because profit is a number easily manipulated and subverted.

Rather, I suggest a simpler version. First, I completely agree with his declining compensation concept. But second, a simpler structure – one which is more easily calculable – is in order here: 15% of first-year revenues, 10% of second-year, 5% of third year, and at the fourth-year the client becomes a “house” account with no origination paid. The firm should also delineate the qualified practice areas of all attorneys, and require that work outside the originating attorneys practice areas be moved to a supervising attorney with the appropriate skills, and out of the hands of the originating attorney. This serves the firm’s purposes in diversifying the firm’s contact with the client, and frankly, keeps the unqualified originating attorney from billing inappropriate hours for “supervision” of work outside their expertise.

Jordan cites frequent cases of inordinate sales focus resulting from declining client service after the sale. This, however, is not really a sales issue, but a management one. Frankly, the biggest obstacle to an attorney developing a larger book is their ability – let me restate that – their skills and willingness – to manage work effectively. Most lawyers are either good technicians or good salespeople, but rarely good managers. This problem is exacerbated by the general trend of law firms to decrease leverage, which drives work that should be done at lower levels up to the attorney, and thus decreases their capacity to handle more matters. And an attorney who is already overwhelmed is not keen to increase their marketing.

There is a larger issue here as well: how the overall firm is operated. The medieval “guild” foundations of the profession create a curious and dangerous dichotomy: my clients are my clients to manage as I wish, but I deserve a big share of the overall profits of the firm.

The fact is that, in most firms other than mega firms, the originating attorney “owns” the client, and has complete control over their management, from indifferent client service to allowing receivables to languish.

As Jordan recommends, the firm should be “taking the temperature” of clients regularly, and the very issue of continued partnership should rest on the attorney’s commitment to high level of client service and satisfaction. In this respect, firms should be actively and aggressively training attorneys to be strong team leaders and managers as well as good salespeople and technicians. And as a corollary to this, firm should be building strong support teams around their strong salespeople, which dramatically increases their capacity to oversee (and thus originate) work. This is a concept which goes against the grain of the current trend in law firm structures and is, in my opinion one of the most short-sighted issues in law firms today. But it points directly to most law firms’ inability to create good managers or good management structures.

And finally, the firm, not the attorney, should own the receivables and manage them appropriately, and the firm should be primarily responsible for making sure a high level of client service is delivered.

2. Start properly valuing everything else.

The issues Jordan enumerates for valuing other elements of the practice are certainly valid. But most of these issues are difficult to quantify other than subjectively, which often assures that no one feels treated fairly. And those that are quantifiable create a considerable overhead burden, as well as much room for argument and discussion.

Yes, firms should value client relations, as measured by client surveys, and project management, as measured by timelines and budgets. Again, these fall into my belief in us of more objective measurements.

Legal marketing, however, is compensated through results – that is, originations – and need not be additionally valued. However, firms should provide marketing budgets and better, more practical staff support. Too often, firms hire marketing people who focus on big issues of branding and image, while failing to support the practical, “boots on the ground” efforts of the individual attorneys which actually generates most of the business.

Leadership activity is already measured and compensated by stipends for service at various levels of management. In fact, firms that fail to do so are insuring that those roles will be marginally exercised, resented, and badly managed. Smart firms not only provide stipends for management responsibilities, but consequent offsets of billable hour requirements.

Recruitment efforts should generally be outside the normal purview of the working attorney, and vested in, for instance a recruitment partner, who is compensated for this management role. There could well be some space to provide some type of “finder fee” for an attorney who refers in a successful candidate. The issue of longevity of that hire as a factor for that compensation isn’t valid, since it is largely outside the control of the finder, and too dependent on political and financial decisions of firm leadership.

Community support and participation, while almost an ethical requirement of attorneys, is really of two types. The first is the contribution of services – pro bono work or work donated to charitable and community organizations – and the second is community participation and leadership. While the first is somewhat quantifiable, the second is a hybrid of personal commitments and marketing.

Permit me a tangent here. One of the biggest failings of most law firms is inadequate recognition that each attorney has certain strengths and weaknesses, and brings specific values to the firm. Most firms expect all attorneys to fall into a single pattern – good sales skills and good technical skills. And in fact, offers of partnership are most often tied directly to originations.

Often, good “sales” people are bad managers (and sometimes even not such great lawyers), and should be required to utilize a strong “client care” team to deliver services and legal work.

Conversely, every firm needs, and should appropriately value, those who are good technicians, and therefore support the good salespeople in delivering service, but who are not good salespeople themselves. The best firms have the appropriate mix of both and the right structures to make it work. Great teams behind great salespeople create a very large funnel of work, revenue, and profit.

3. Stop paying partners to bill hours.

Jordan’s observation on the baffling partnership structure is dead center. Back in the 1990s large firms were experiencing a disturbing trend: associates were leaving large firms at an alarming rate. While the theory was that partnership was a reward, associates saw partners under more pressure and stress, rather than less. A Wall Street Journal article quoted one associate as saying that the competition for partnership was “a pie eating contest, the reward for which is more pie.”

Why this still exists is a complex problem, but one that stems from the fact that most attorneys still see themselves as technicians, not managers, and insist on staying on as players, long past the point that they should have been moved to coaching.

There are virtually no successful companies where the owners and founders are still on the assembly line making widgets. In the business world, the successful entrepreneur moves from inventor to technician to manager to leader, and eventually to passive owner or shareholder.

The foundation of this problem is laid in law school, which typically teaches two principles. First, just do great work and the clients will come: and second, you’re a professional and not a business person. Consequently, lawyers have no desire to become managers, and indeed, see it as abandoning their profession, and thus their identities. In other words, their identity is tied up with the work itself, rather than the business that does that work. In many firms, the person elected managing partner is the person who was not present at the partner meeting to refuse.

Too many firms perpetuate this approach and this model by undercompensating their leaders and burdening them with onerous “technician” requirements for billable hours. Just four years ago, I encountered a managing partner of a 55-attorney office of one of the top 20 largest law firms who was paid $50,000 for the role, while still required to bill at least $600,000 – and given the support of half an assistant to support him in fulfilling both roles.

Final observation. The revolution that has already come to Britain and Australia and will shortly come to Canada (www.CBA futures.org – a must-read) will, sooner than anyone expects, come to the United States. And when venture capitalists, investors, and strong business leaders begin to transform the profession, much, if not all of this, will change. Big firms will fall and splinter and merge like never before. Smaller firms with onerous partnership and buyout terms will disintegrate, leaving those senior partners expecting big payoffs looking at empty firm checkbooks. And many attorneys will find their expected career paths vaporizing. My last tongue-in-cheek blog post, “Berkshire Hathaway Purchases Nebraska’s Largest Law Firm” isn’t fantasy, but simply a news article ahead of its time.

Told Ya So – Small Towns are the Next Big Thing

WSJ had some “breaking news” about some midwestern law schools who are telling their graduates to look again at the small towns, and are actively setting up internships in such communities. (See “New Lawyers, Seeking Jobs, Are Advised to Think Small)

The gist of the article is the revelation that, while in big cities the legal profession is eating its young (see June 19 WSJ article “Only 55% of 2011 Law School Grads Had Full-Time, Long-Term Legal Jobs), smaller communities are hurting for legal talent. Seems that the number of lawyers in more rural areas has actually decreased, and those that are left are disproportionately older and transactional. And many of them would like to transition their practices but don’t have any candidates.

Been saying that to my audiences for several years, based on experiences with several brilliant and insightful clients. One, Ethan Vessels, some time back purposely moved to Marietta, in the remote southwestern corner of Ohio, next to Parkersburg West Virginia, and has built a very productive and satisfying contingency practice based on old-school techniques of building relationships and leadership in the community. A powerful benefit: a great lifestyle in a beautiful smaller city. Another, Bill Steffens, is on the other side of the coin with a truly great practice in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Says Bill “I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle here for any big city you could name.” But he has had trouble attracting a successor.

The Lifestyle Benefit
Even if you’ve been in practice a while but are seeking a less stressful practice and/or a saner family lifestyle, do some serious study about your state’s smaller communities. The stats are in your favor – and the payoff could be bigger than you imagine.

New GP Solo Succession Planning Article Now Posted

The July/August issue of GP Solo Magazine will feature a longish article by me on succession & transition planning, based on the program I have been conducting for various Bar associations  around the country. Just posted to my Articles page. You can read it first right here – Succession Planning for the 62 Percent.

Comments are welcome, and I’m happy to answer individual questions as well. Just e-mail me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

Dinosaur Dewey Teaches the Profession Some Simple Lessons

Four lessons for the legal profession from the Dewey LeBeouf debacle:

Lesson One: Law firms are businesses, and need to be run like one. The old law school indoctrination that “you’re not a businessperson, you’re a professional” comes home to roost.

Lesson Two: Most lawyers, like doctors, are crappy business people. Great legal skills don’t equate to great business skills. The Dewey head cheese blithely gathered in other big-ego and big-reputation people like it was 2005 and the boom was on. He made outrageous promises that sank Dewey when they couldn’t deliver. The Executive Committee was even worse. They thought their role was to be the sounding board and implementer of the head man’s grandiose ideas, instead of what they were supposed to be: protectors of the corporate finances and manager of the CEO, not the other way around. A surfeit of bad business people.

Lesson Three: Today ain’t yesterday. It’s more like tomorrow. While big firms like Dewey follow old paths toward oblivion, hundreds of young firms, unencumbered by the structures and traditions of the past, are busy transforming hiring smarter, building more flexible, virtual structures, casting off the caste system, and learning how to profit by delivering great work at reasonable – and often flat – rates.

Lesson Four: Success comes from looking UP from your client’s perspective instead of  from the firm’s lofty perch DOWN. Ask Apple. Ask Google. Great businesses are customer-centered, not ego-centered.

 

Older Lawyers Subsidizing Failing Practices While Younger Lawyers Are Homeless

Three years ago I offered a succession planning program to Bar associations around the country with the warning that there was a crisis looming on the horizon relating to the aging of the profession. It was greeted with yawns. Now the subject is plastered all over the covers of scores of national, state, and local Bar publications.

Unfortunately, neat and tidy “transitions” are not in the cards for huge numbers of solo and small firm attorneys.

In a recent presentation to a malpractice insurer I observed that I am seeing a growing number of previously successful older lawyers who are now subsidizing their  failing practices with their retirement funds, until both the attorney and the funds are exhausted, and the attorney surrenders.

While this tragedy is in process, there are literally hundreds of young homeless lawyers who would be willing – no, enthusiastic – about teaming up with the senior lawyer to revitalize the practice, and gain the mentoring and direction of the older lawyer.

As I see it, the issue of  “transition,” as it’s neatly referred to, is really an issue of professional life or death for those at both ends of the career spectrum.

My friend Jordan Furlong, in my mind the most accurate and thoughtful of the futurists, in his blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink  http://www.law21.ca/ quotes some truly frightening statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. He reads the statistics in this way: “over the course of this decade, 440,000 new law graduates will be competing for 212,000 jobs, a 48% employment level.” This while literally thousands of senior attorneys are trying – and failing – to land their practices safely and retire.

Yes, certainly many are in the “commodity” areas of practice that are being killed off by the likes of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. But many are in higher-value areas, and simply have not kept up with new marketing methods or, frankly, the die-off of their best referral sources. Many others are in smaller communities – where I believe the best opportunities still exist for newer attorneys to find a good income and a wonderful lifestyle – because in those areas “goodwill” (that is, reputation and connections in the community) still has value.

For thousands of younger attorneys who are struggling to survive in a raging sea of competition and change, the opportunity to team with a senior lawyer with reputation, skills and connections would be a godsend.

There are a lucky few lawyers who will be able to “sell” (or whatever their Bar associations call it) their practices for some amount of money. But there will be more, far more, whose successful careers will come to a sad end, as T.S. Eliot put it, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Watch this space. Over the coming months I will be providing more information to both sides of the aisle. I will also be working  in conjunction with Bar associations across the country to help senior attorneys make more successful transitions, and help younger attorneys connect with them, and work together for the benefit of both.

Oh, the Places You’ll (Fail to) Go: How Great Intentions Turn Into Great Disasters

Each time I’m called to conduct a retreat, I’m reminded that lawyers are great at lawyering, but often stink at anything relating to effective business operations. One recent “retreat,” actually an informal mediation in a year-old two-attorney merger, was typical.

Musing 1: The Shoemaker’s Children Have No – Common Sense.
Two plaintiff attorney “partners” had been working together as a “firm’ for over a year without anything in writing. No shareholder agreement. No compensation/origination plan. No shared responsibility for the credit line. No employment agreement. Now these two, who had started out as friends, were trying to sort out all the “I thought you” and “remember we discussed” and “I don’t recall,” “you owe me for…” and “I deserve…”

The result was predictable. Nearly all the optimism lost, fear and anger rising. On the verge of MAD – mutual assured destruction.

I was called in to see if this “partnership” be saved. After a tough day, we were able to work through most of the issues without bloodshed. But in the long term, even if the partnership proceeds, the friendship and trust will remain wounded – unnecessarily. All because they didn’t make it a priority to work out all the issues BEFORE moving in together.

Do YOU have a partner agreement & compensation structure, or just a handshake? “We trust each other” won’t be enough when big enough problems surface. Take time now to get it all in writing.

One partner dispute I remember from the distant past resulted in seven years of suits and countersuits. Worse than breaking a mirror.

Musing Two: Cancer Sometimes Masquerades as a Friend
The two above partners wanted to make it work. Unfortunately, one attorney’s longtime trusted right hand staff member didn’t want her world disturbed. Like a spoiled child, she subtly spread rumors, created dissension, and destroyed staff trust. Her sabotage and lack of cooperation was close to destroying the attorney’s trust in the incipient partner. Fortunately we were able to finally recognize the problem. If blind loyalty trumps a better future and staff is running the firm, it’s time for the attorney to turn in his diploma.

Musing 3: Succession Planning Isn’t for Wusses.
The purpose of the merger, such as it was, was to create a succession plan for the senior attorney. Unfortunately, it was approached in the same way as the “partnership.” No plan, no structure, no idea of what was needed to make it work – and a deep paranoia from the senior partner, even though the whole idea was his in the first place.

Succession planning isn’t for wusses. Attorneys who think they know everything too often end up failing miserably at the process. And both the senior and junior attorneys end up losing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal income.

What we grudgingly cobbled together in the retreat worked for a few months. But presently the two are in a legal and financial struggle to the death, which will entail multiple lawsuits and mutual bloody clubbings in court.

If you’re looking toward a transition of any sort in your practice, doing it right takes planning and expert guidance. Anything less could be one of the most expensive mistakes you’ll ever make. Don’t do it blindly or ex post facto. Get expert guidance. Not sure where to find it? Call me. 407-830-9810.